IN PERSON; Food Stories Galore, And Here Is One

The New York Times, February 1, 2004

EVEN though she grates her own nutmeg, grows her own herbs and owns a mezzaluna — a fancy Italian knife shaped like a half moon — Laura Schenone isn't a “foody,” at least in the conventional sense. She does not, for example, have anything resembling a designer kitchen, and she had such “bad cooking karma” the other day that she burned her favorite All-Clad pot while stewing apples for breakfast.

In fact, Ms. Schenone, who recently came out with “A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove” (W.W. Norton, $35), cooks on an unremarkable and, in her word, “ugly” Tappan gas stove, which came with her house here.

Although Ms. Schenone, a freelance writer and mother of two, is interested in food and always has been, her interest goes well beyond what she refers to as “how it tastes in your own individual mouth.” What really interests her are the stories behind food — and what food says about the women who serve it up. And she is more interested in the products of everyday working kitchens than she is in what is cooked up by the world's finest chefs.

“I was always the kind of person who liked to sit in the kitchen with my grandmother and my mother,” she said.

The granddaughter of immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Croatia who all found their way to Hoboken, Ms. Schenone spent her early childhood in a working-class Latino neighborhood in West New York. “They were hard workers those women, often busy busy busy,” she said. “But the place I could get close to them was in the kitchen.”

Ms. Schenone is the kind of cook and food writer who tracks down old family recipes, both on her side of the family and on her husband's, with the tenacity of a detective. “I'm a little obsessed with ravioli right now,” Ms. Schenone said. She traveled to Genoa last summer, partly in search of her family's recipe for genuine Genovese Christmas ravioli, which is made from slow-cooked beef and veal.

And if you give her a recipe or even name a type of food, her mind immediately starts spinning to place the food in a historical and sociological context.

If you say “corn pudding,” for example, she will immediately think of Abby Fisher, an African-American woman who published an 1881 cookbook, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking,” which included many slave recipes. Corn was a staple of the slave diet.

If you say “borscht,” she riffs about societies where women had to make root vegetables last all winter to feed their families.

“My mind goes through a whole thing,” she explained. ' “Connections fire away. I see the world that way.”

She can't even watch a movie without noticing who is cooking what and in what kind of kitchen.

“A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove,” with the subtitle “A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances,” is a lavishly illustrated compendium of women's cooking from Native American times to present.

But it is also, at least partly, the story of Ms. Schenone's 41-year relationship with food. Tucked in between the accounts of slave cooks like Abby Fisher and a page from Molly Katzen's handwritten “Moosewood Cookbook” is a recipe for her mother's “Blueberry Cream Salad,” a 70's-era Jell-O mold. “Back during the 70's, we called it 'mold' without even a smirk,” Ms. Schenone wrote. “Sometimes it was a dessert and sometimes a side dish, sometimes a 'salad.' You could never tell.”

The book starts by recalling Ms. Schenone's admittedly romantic adventure living for two years as a “vegetable goddess” in a 150-year-old farmhouse in Cranbury with her husband, Herb Schaffner, who is about to start a job as a senior editor at Harper Collins, before they had children. There she grew and cooked her own pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers. It was, she writes, “a lark” - a lifestyle that made her city friends envious, and that she could try on and discard like an old pair of shoes.

Still, the farmhouse experience filled her with curiosity about the ghosts of the women who had lived there before, and ultimately led her to consider other ghosts, like her own foremothers.

“One day, while I was steaming the skins off some tomatoes in that hot August kitchen, it dawned on me that I could tell my life's story through food,” she wrote. “Since food is such an eternal thread through women's lives, I wondered, perhaps naïvely, if I could tell other women's stories that way too.”

After Ms. Schenone traced her own family's food history to the 19th century, she decided she could go further back still. And that led to the idea for the book. “I felt like nothing had ever been done before to tell the story of women and food,” she said.

Originally, she wanted her book to encompass the history of women and food worldwide, but a friend talked her out of it, suggesting she concentrate on America instead.

Even so, the project was so vast that it took a year just to write the book proposal and four more years to research and write it. “There was a certain point,” she said. “Where I was in over my head.”

Although her book celebrates the accomplishments of women who cooked in simpler eras, she tries to avoid being sentimental.

“I have to constantly police myself on the romanticism of it,” she said. Moreover, she is aware that the kitchen has imprisoned women, as well as showcasing their creativity. “I do really acknowledge that cooking has oppressed women,” she said. “And it has given them power. The labor and the love are two sides of one coin.”

Even in her own life, Ms. Schenone can feel that contradiction. During a party, she will sometimes resent standing in her kitchen, preparing food, and “missing some great conversations” going on elsewhere. But she also acknowledges that there are times when she carries a special dish out to her guests, “and the whole atmosphere changes” because of her creation.

Just as she tries to avoid sentimentality, Ms. Schenone also resists the urge to smirk at previous eras and the foods they produced. Though she doesn't like Jell-O, for example, she concedes in her book that it was “light-hearted and comforting, perfect for a generation struggling with the memories of war, fear of communism, and worry that an atom bomb might fall.”

“You do have to watch yourself making fun of other eras, because some day they'll be making fun of us,” she said.

The same goes for current absurdities, like the obsession with carbohydrates (“eat less, eat well, move your body,” the slim author advises) and $100,000 designer kitchens with granite countertops and Viking stoves. But rather than condemn Viking idolatry, or worse, succumb to it, “I always remind myself of all the good cooking that has been done with the simplest means possible,“ she said.

Ms. Schenone smiles as she recalls an unforgettable salad that she and her husband ate during their honeymoon in 1989, while driving mopeds on the Greek island of Naxos. They stopped in a mountain village and ate at a tiny cafe flanked by lemon trees. After, they looked into the house where their meal had been prepared. “It was like a cave, practically, and it was this beautiful food,“ Ms. Schenone said.

Ms. Schenone's own kitchen features white Formica countertops, open shelving that allows visitors to see her mixing bowls and an original porcelain washboard sink from the 1920's or 30's, the bottom of which is painted buttermilk yellow. The kitchen window is adorned with simple curtains in a 1950's-inspired flower motif — “except the flowers are black — a little piece of irony to amuse myself,“ she said.

The kitchen is not big enough for a table, but it does have a plastic toy kitchen-set for her two sons to play with while she cooks.

She says that when she meets her readers, at book signings and other events, they often want to talk about their own mothers.

“People want to talk to me about their relationships about mom and food. People talk about over-boiled vegetables,“ she said. “People come up to me with tears in their eyes.“